The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

After a drawn out legal battle, a federal judge ruled on Monday that the city of New Orleans must move forward with a new jail facility, known as Phase III, which will be used to house detainees with serious mental illness and medical conditions.

The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, approves a December recommendation by a magistrate judge that a request by the city to halt work on the facility be denied. 

The city had been moving forward with the construction of Phase III for a year when it abruptly stopped paying the architect to do design work in June, and eventually petitioned the court to get permission to abandon the facility altogether. Though the city had previously agreed to move forward with the facility, its attorneys argued that Phase III was no longer necessary due to improved mental health care and declining population in the jail, and that the $51 million building was no longer financially feasible because of a tightened budget stemming from the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Monday’s ruling came as part of the ongoing court case that established the long-running federal consent decree over the jail. Approved in 2013, the consent decree is meant to bring the jail — which had a history of substandard conditions, frequent violence against inmates and staff and poor medical and mental health care — into compliance with the U.S. Constitution.  

A dedicated facility for inmates with acute medical and mental health care needs has long been a sticking point in the case. The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office — which runs the jail — has supported it, while many criminal justice reform advocates have come out against any expansion of the jail’s footprint.

The city government, which funds the jail, has repeatedly changed its position on Phase III. Last year, it abruptly came out against it last year after previously providing periodic updates to the court on the building’s progress. 

But the other parties in the litigation — including the Sheriff’s Office, the United States Department of Justice, and civil rights attorneys representing detainees in the jail — all objected to the city’s request to halt the facility, arguing that the city had committed to building it and that it is the best option for providing badly needed services for those in jail with mental health needs. 

The potential to stop the facility, however, galvanized the city’s criminal justice reform advocates, who argued that jail is no place to treat mental illness and resources instead should be devoted to community based mental health care. They also supported a plan that was eventually presented by the city to retrofit a floor of the existing jail building to provide acute care. 

But Africk was unmoved by those arguments or alternative options, considering them outside the scope of the legal questions at hand. “The City may think Phase III is bad policy, politics, or both,” Africk wrote in Monday’s ruling. “It is the City’s job to think about policy and politics. The Court may not do so.” 

And the legal arguments, Africk ruled, “crumbled at every step.”

“The incoherence speaks for itself,” he wrote.

Africk also expressed disappointment with how the proceedings had played out. 

“The Court is disturbed to find the case remaining at this juncture, years after it was filed,” he wrote. “All parties involved here justifiably believed that the City had resolved itself to address the needs of special inmate populations, including the severely mentally ill, with the construction of the Phase III facility. Now faced with the City’s broken promises, the Court can only shake its head.”

A spokesperson for the city said that they were “extremely disappointed” with the court’s decision, and that the city has “invested tremendously” in the jail already.

“The City is obligated to balance many important priorities when it comes to how to best serve our residents, and how to effectively and appropriately spend limited taxpayer dollars,” the spokesperson said. “Changed circumstances, including the City’s significantly reduced revenue, and steadily declining jail population, dictate that a new jail building is neither needed nor required by the Consent Judgment. The City also cannot ignore how over-investment in jails is known to negatively impact black and brown communities.”

It is unclear whether the city will attempt to appeal the ruling, but Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition — one of the community groups who have long opposed Phase III — urged them to do so. 

“While our community is dismayed by today’s ruling, this is not the end: our city must appeal the federal judge’s ruling,” she said in a statement, which called the costs of ongoing litigation “small compared to the long-term public health and financial costs of building a new psychiatric jail.”

“While our entire city would bear the costs of jail expansion for generations to come, our Black and brown neighbors — especially those living with severe mental illness — would bear the brunt if we do not prioritize care instead of jailing people in a psychiatric Phase III jail,” she said. 

Regardless of any forthcoming legal proceedings, It is unlikely that the facility will be completed any time soon. Last month, following the magistrate’s recommendation that they move forward with the facility, the city said in a court filing that it “ taking immediate steps to further engage the Architect in the completion of design work.”  

That design work, they said, is about 75% complete, and will be submitted to the fire department for review.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...